Matthew Morrison on His Magical, Musical Journey to Neverland

Matthew Morrison on His Magical, Musical Journey to Neverland

What’s more exciting than singing Broadway hits on national television? For Glee star Matthew Morrison, the answer is returning to his theatrical roots to play Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie in the new musical Finding Neverland.

Make no mistake: Morrison is endlessly grateful for the career-boosting gift of playing teacher Will Schuester on the music-heavy Fox series for the past six years. “If I could have written a show for myself, Glee is the one I’d have written,” says the 36-year-old actor, who added Emmy and Golden Globe nominations to a résumé that already included a Tony nod for The Light in the Piazza. “But there’s something so different about being in front of a live audience, telling a story from beginning to end. I’ve realized that the stage is the place where I do my best work.”
Leading a cast that includes Kelsey Grammer as producer Charles Frohman and Laura Michelle Kelly as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (matriarch of the family that inspired Barrie to pen Peter Pan), Morrison will begin his latest Broadway star turn on March 15 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, with opening night set for April 15. “It feels like coming home,” he says. “Having been away from Broadway for six years, I wanted my return to be something special, and when Finding Neverland came along, I thought, I have to tell this story.”

Morrison is stepping into the role that earned Johnny Depp a 2005 best actor Oscar nomination. Like the heartwarming film hit, the musical introduces audiences to James Matthew Barrie, the Scottish-born dramatist whose friendship with the four young sons of an ailing London widow led to the creation of Peter and his band of Lost Boys. “I’m a big fan of seeing the story behind the story,” says Morrison, “and it’s especially fascinating with the creation of an iconic character like Peter Pan. And without giving anything away, some of the visual pictures are absolutely stunning.”

The real J.M. Barrie wasn’t as handsome or charismatic as Matthew Morrison or Johnny Depp, and his success came amid sorrows such as the death of his older brother when James was 6 and his unhappy marriage to actress Mary Ansell. “He is one of those guys who seems to have everything but isn’t connected to his true self,” observes Morrison. “Then he meets Peter, who doesn’t have any joy in him, and he wants to save this boy from a life like his own, because he feels like he grew up too fast.”

Diane Paulus, the musical’s Tony-winning director, praises her new leading man as a perfect match for his role. “This is the story of an artistic reawakening,” she explains. “You see how his connection with this free-spirited woman and her four children unlocks J.M. Barrie as an artist and makes it possible for him to break new ground. In many ways, there’s a parallel for Matthew: He’s been so successful in L.A., and now he’s coming [back] to unlock something that I am hoping as his director will make people say, ‘Wow!’ This show is the right fit for where he is right now in his career, and how he’s grown.”

Finding Neverland’s score, by British songwriters Gary Barlow (of the pop group Take That) and Eliot Kennedy, “is a wonderful blend of contemporary and classic,” says Morrison, a description that mirrors his stage career, having starred on Broadway in both Hairspray (as teen idol Link Larkin) and South Pacific (as “Younger Than Springtime” soloist Lieutenant Cable). “The show takes place in the early 1900s, so the costumes are old-fashioned, but there’s this amazing pop sensibility to the songs.”

Morrison began his own professional balancing act at a prestigious arts high school near his home in Orange County, California. He received such good training, in fact, that when he entered NYU’s theater program, he couldn’t see a reason to spend four years abiding by the school’s strict “no audition” policy. “I just wanted to be on Broadway,” he says now. “That was my goal since I was a young kid.” The talented singer/dancer dropped out during his sophomore year after winning a spot in the ensemble of the 1998 musical Footloose and began climbing the Broadway ranks. Then came Glee, and an abrupt leap into the public eye.

“It’s been a life-changing career opportunity, and a great tool to bring attention to social issues,” he says of Glee, which began its final season in early January. “Parents could sit down with their kids and see stories about teen pregnancy and school shootings and being gay in high school, then turn off the TV and have a conversation about it.” Along the way, Morrison got to show off his supple vocals in songs as varied as “Sway,” “Endless Love,” “Over the Rainbow” (accompanying himself on ukulele), and even a mashup of “Singing in the Rain” and Rihanna’s “Umbrella” with Gwyneth Paltrow. Glee also gave national coverage to dozens of musical theater standards. “I do concerts with symphony orchestras, and I talk about how amazing it was for kids to get exposed to Broadway music on television week in and week out,” he says. “It’s a show I will always be associated with, and I’m proud of that.”

The past few months have been a whirlwind for Morrison, who married his longtime girlfriend, model Renee Puente, on October 18 in a beachfront ceremony on Maui. Amazingly, the event wasn’t ruined by the arrival of Hurricane Ana, and the smiling newlyweds performed a hula for their guests. In December, Morrison joined the New York Pops and his Light in the Piazza and South Pacific costar Kelli O’Hara for three sold-out holiday concerts, the perfect prelude to his Broadway homecoming.

“That experience was incredible,” he says of reuniting with O’Hara on the stage of Carnegie Hall. “We’re tied together not only by the shows we’ve done, but she’s one of my closest friends. I was at her wedding [to singer/songwriter Greg Naughton] and she would have been at mine if she hadn’t been working. We’ve seen each other grow, and now we’re both coming back to Broadway.” (O’Hara will headline The King and I at Lincoln Center Theater beginning March 15.) With a laugh, Morrison adds, “The only problem is that we’ll be on the same schedule so we can’t see each other’s shows!”

After six years away, Morrison is most excited about returning to the tight-knit Broadway community. “As close as you get to a television cast, there’s something special about the theater,” he muses. “I think it’s the fact that you’re performing live, so you really depend on the people you’re on stage with. Everyone has each other’s backs, and that connection translates off stage. I can’t wait to be part of the Finding Neverland family and to bring this beautiful show to life.”